Magazine article Geographical

Putting the Houses in Order: During the Raj, the Chettiar Community of the Indian State of Tamil Nadu Built Thousands of Palatial Homes with Money Earned While Working for the British. but after the End of the Colonial Era, the Houses Fell into Disrepair. Now, Thanks to the Efforts of Two French Architects, Many Are Being Restored to Their Former Glory

Magazine article Geographical

Putting the Houses in Order: During the Raj, the Chettiar Community of the Indian State of Tamil Nadu Built Thousands of Palatial Homes with Money Earned While Working for the British. but after the End of the Colonial Era, the Houses Fell into Disrepair. Now, Thanks to the Efforts of Two French Architects, Many Are Being Restored to Their Former Glory

Article excerpt

Woney was no object; only the best would do. Tiles were brought in from Spain and Japan in their millions, thousands of tonnes of teak arrived from Burma, and marble and extravagant crystal chandeliers came from Italy. Mirrors were imported from Belgium, the steel came from the UK, and the whole lot was combined with millions of hand-baked roof tiles and paint made of hundreds of thousands of eggshells.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But the palatial abodes built from these international ingredients weren't one-offs, the odd individual looking down on his less-fortunate neighbours; there were tens of thousands of them, scattered across an area of 1,500 or so square kilometres.

These are the mansions of Chettinad, an arid land of bush and scrub, located in the heart of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Very little grows here; summer temperatures frequently exceed 40[degrees]C and the baked earth holds few resources of any value. But none of that mattered to the Chettiars; this parched backwater was a safe place for them to live, free from interference and in the lap of a self-created luxury.

DISTANT ORIGINS

The Nattukottai or Nagarathur Chettiars are a sub-caste of the Vaishya, the third-highest of the Hindu social classes. Their early history is sketchy at best, with no firm historical evidence to explain their origins. One legend suggests that a tsunami destroyed their coastal town and, fearing a repeat, they fled inland to the driest place they could find.

Following their arrival in this desolate part of Tamil Nadu, they made a modest living doing business locally, specialising in trade and banking. It was with the arrival of the British during the 18th century that their fortunes changed. British expansionism was rapidly engulfing South and Southeast Asia, country by country, and when the East India Company set up shop in Madras (now Chennai), the capital of Tamil Nadu, it brought the British and the Chettiars together. The British needed reliable and honest middlemen through whom they could deal with the locals, and the rajahs of southern India recommended the Chettiars, who had a reputation for reliability and honour.

Early business dealings primarily involved local transactions of modest sums, but in 1774, the headquarters of the East India Company was moved to Calcutta as the company looked to expand into Burma. The British ruled Burma from the 1820s to the 1950s, and the Chettiars were never far behind, doing business on an enormous scale. 'The Chettiars understood the political and geographical context of this period and took full advantage,' explains Michel Adment, a French architect who, along with his partner, Bernard Dragon, has lived in Chettinad since 2004. 'The British essentially opened up these countries one by one, giving the Chettiars access.'

But despite trading in exotic and foreign materials in distant lands, the Chettiars always based their operations in Chettinad. 'The Chettiars were very worldly, but their society was held together by very strict rules, such as marrying within the caste and land ownership,' Dragon says.

At the height of the Chettiar's success, they numbered more than 110,000, living in 96 villages and towns scattered across the region. They used the wealth they accumulated to build enormous, ornate mansions; the total number is difficult to ascertain, but is believed to have been as high as 60,000.

When Adment and Dragon arrived in Chettinad in 2004, the population was relatively unchanged, but the number of Chettiar villages had decreased to 73 (as well as two cities) and the number of mansions had dropped to about 25,000. 'Houses are currently being demolished at a rate of 20 per month, and many more are ready to come down,' says Meenakshi 'Madame' Meyyappan, a hotelier based in Karaikudi--the largest city in Sivaganga district and the unofficial capital of Chettinad--and the wife of a wealthy Chettiar who worked mostly in Malaysia. …

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